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Theatre in Review: The Gospel of John (Sheen Center)

Ken Jennings. Photo: Maria Baranova.

At the beginning of his solo show, Ken Jennings says that his decision to memorize St. John's Gospel began as a prayer, but the result onstage at the Sheen Center is more of a recitation. The actor approaches this sacred text with reverence but less invention than is needed to make it come to life onstage. He has assigned himself a supremely difficult task, to be sure, and it cannot be said that, in his hands, the gospel yields a compelling performance.

I mean no disrespect, either to a foundational document of Christianity or to the actor who clearly feels deeply about it. John's gospel is a mountain for any actor to scale, filled -- at least in the better translations -- with language of tremendous majesty; it is certainly episodic, but there is an underlying narrative in which Christ's teachings and miracles increasingly irritate the religious establishment, leading to his arrest, torture, and crucifixion. If handled with analytical vigor, one could arguably give it a strong narrative drive, the story of a man who challenges the religious orthodoxy of the day, leading to a tragic climax followed by redemptive finale.

Jennings throws himself into the performance in strangely monotonous fashion, however, bringing plenty of energy but surprisingly little variety to his reading of a text that is loaded with contradictions, conflicts, humor, and mystery. Such famous passages as the marriage feast at Cana, the encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, the raising of the dead Lazarus, and the risen Christ's encounter with the skeptical apostle Thomas are presented without much characterization, shading, or emphasis. Each of these episodes could have been a moment of revelation, each -- except for the Thomas episode -- representing a brick in the path that lands him in front of Pontius Pilate. But, in this rendition, neither Christ nor the other characters who figure in the narrative emerges as a distinct personality. (The one exception is Pilate, who seems to capture Jennings' imagination; the passage in which he struggles to understand the popular demand for Christ's execution is easily the most memorable part of the evening.)

Jennings long ago earned his rightful place in Broadway history with his performances in the original productions of Sweeney Todd, Side Show, and Urinetown, but this is a different kind of challenge, one that he has not yet met. It doesn't help that the version of the gospel he has chosen is littered with banalities: "I don't find any crime in him," announces Pilate, sounding rather like a district attorney. Certain textual infelicities are difficult to isolate because, at least at the performance I attended, Jennings appeared to paraphrase a number of passages, adding explanatory interpolations, for example, about the location of Bethany, home of Lazarus. Whether he has given himself the freedom to improvise or isn't fully conversant with the text isn't entirely clear.

What's missing in Jennings' performance is any sense of specificity, a moment-to-moment reality that would make the words come alive. Go to YouTube and check out any ten minutes of Alec McCowen's performance of The Gospel of Mark to experience the difference: The actor has a deep intimacy with the words, and he finds a vast range of humanity in each episode; he makes a two-thousand-year-old piece of scripture seem thoroughly contemporary and thrillingly alive. At the Sheen Center, John Pietrowski has seemingly acted more as Jennings' enabler than his director; a more trenchant interpretation is sorely wanted.

The scenery, designed by Charlie Corcoran, is pleasingly simple, taking place on a raised deck backed by an unadorned piece of cloth. Abigail Hoke-Brady's lighting provides any number of graceful transitions aided by subtle color choices. Tracy Christensen hasm, appropriately, dressed Jennings in blue jeans and a work shirt. M. Florian Staab's sound effects include splashing water, angry crowds, and a storm at sea. The sincerity behind this production cannot be denied, but, as of now, it remains far from being in optimum shape; even the most devout may find this to be tough going. -- David Barbour

(9 December 2019)

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